Capuano cornered?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 3, 2009

If Republicans think they can turn the Murtha scandal into a broad attack on House Democrats, Capuano would be a likely conduit. Pelosi, they could say, put a guy in charge of reform who really was knee-deep in lobbyist games — who was more interested in protecting himself and Murtha than in actually changing the culture of corruption in Washington.

Says one aide to Republican leadership on Capitol Hill: "As more reports come out about the scope of this scandal, I think you'll see Republican efforts pivoting to highlight it."

Ammunition
A look at Capuano's campaign reports suggests that, if the Republicans do go after him, he'll have provided them with live ammunition.

Although he's not a prolific fundraiser, Capuano still raised around $1.2 million during the 2007–'08 election cycle, the first since the Democrats re-gained the majority in the House. Roughly half came from PACs, including those from PMA Group and at least two of its clients, Parametric Technology and Textron, which received Capuano-sponsored earmarks in Murtha's appropriations bills. Individual contributions were dominated by lobbyists and their clients — including nearly $60,000 given by PMA Group lobbyists, associates, and family in those two years, according to a Phoenix review. That includes all four individuals reportedly under a particular microscope in the federal investigation.

Murtha came to Cambridge as the "special guest" for a Capuano fundraiser a month before the 2006 election. Capuano then backed Murtha's bid to become Majority Leader — an effort rejected by rank-and-file Democrats, in large part due to concerns that Murtha was vulnerable to charges the he was susceptible to outside influence. In 2008, when Murtha faced a tough re-election (after publicly suggesting his constituents might be too racist to vote for Barack Obama), Capuano gave him a maximum $5000 contribution from Mass PAC — one of just 19 campaigns he funded in that cycle.

This past week, CQ Politics, the Web site of the Washington publication Congressional Quarterly, listed and ranked 104 congressmen who had sponsored earmarks through Murtha's committee for PMA Group clients — and the contributions those members have received from PMA's lobbyists. (Several have already pledged to return all PMA Group contributions.) Capuano's contributions from the firm ranked him 11th on the CQ Politics list. In a statement provided to the Phoenix, Capuano says that he is "concerned about recent news reports regarding the PMA Group and am closely monitoring this situation." He has ordered a review of their donations, "and will consider all options, including returning funds."

Reformer, or impediment?
After the 2006 election, Pelosi hand-picked Capuano to chair a Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement. The resulting "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act" — passed in November 2007 after lengthy delays — has ironically created some new transparency that could come back to bite Capuano. One of its provisions, requiring public disclosure of earmark sponsorship, is the very mechanism that revealed Capuano was behind funding to such companies as Parametric Technology Corp., Abt Associates, and Textron. And new online databases of lobbyist-disclosure data tell us that PMA Group lobbied for all three of those companies.

In spite of this new transparency, critics say that Capuano's reform effort was a show. "It was the least they could do while giving the appearance of doing something," charges Melanie Sloan, executive director of the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

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